What’s next for juveniles charged in Sevier County wildfire case?

(Courtesy: WATE)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – Many people have asked what’s happening with the two juveniles charged with aggravated arson in those deadly wildfires.

WKRN sister station WATE has been monitoring this every day, but there are some legal obstacles and built-in protections for juveniles to consider. Because of the gag order in the case, any of the principals involved, from the Fourth District Attorney General to the TBI to defense attorneys, would face prosecution themselves if they talked out of turn.

The news about the two arrests in the Gatlinburg wildfires came on December 7 in a live TBI news conference. The TBI’s Mark Gwyn said, “Unfortunately, these two individuals are juveniles. I can tell you that this investigation is active and ongoing and we still have a lot of work to do.”

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That’s the last official word about the arrests of the juveniles who are not from Sevier County. Nothing much beyond that is known due to the gag order in the case.

LMU Duncan School of Law Professor April James is an expert in juvenile law. She says cases involving children are designed to move quicker if they stay in juvenile court.

“The juvenile court is designed to expedite the adjudication of these offenses because, again, the goal is to rehabilitate these children while they’re still children, so time is of the essence,” James said.

The arrest announcement came 36 days ago. That’s not a long time in the legal world, but James said it might be enough for the case.

“I suspect that sufficient time has passed at this point, ” James said, “that probably the district attorney has garnered most of the information that is available to him.”

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James also explained what could happen if the charges are increased.

“It’s possible that charges for first degree murder could be brought. In Tennessee, if a felony is committed and someone loses their life as a result of the commission of that felony, first degree murder charges could be brought, but it’s very fact-specific and so without more information about what really happened or the intent of these children, it’s hard to say whether that’s a viable charge to be brought.”

If the teens are charged with murder, they can be tried as adults in state court. Children under age 16 cannot be moved to adult court unless they commit a violent crime, such as first degree murder, second degree murder, rape, aggravated rape, rape of a child, aggravated robbery, especially aggravated robbery, kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping or especially aggravated kidnapping or an attempt to commit any such offenses.

Children 16 and older can have cases moved to adult court for lesser charges such as arson. James says it’s also possible a plea has already been negotiated.

“If in fact they did this,” she went on to say, “I think community service and an opportunity to work with some of those victims hand-in-hand in rebuilding their community – I think that would be very beneficial and I think it would be beneficial for the victims as well.”

The most serious of crimes in juvenile court have the Department of Children’s Services getting involved. The most serious placement of those under age and in serious trouble would be a youth detention facility, but those are usually reserved for minors who’ve committed three or more felonies or certain violent offenses.

All of that could change if the teens are tried on first degree murder or reckless homicide charges. Professor James says the boys may or may not be in detention right now. Under law, they have to be offered bond, and in many juvenile cases, they’re offered conditional release pending trial if there’s nothing to indicate they would be a flight risk.

Click here for complete coverage of the Sevier County wildfire.